I climb out of the Subway on 110th Street. The end of June, the beginning of summer, a glittering Broadway. In the distance, the sun is setting into the arc of the Hudson as it flows into the Atlantic – all of Manhattan is iridescent, the grey houses are pink. I have climbed these subways stairs up to 110th so many times that I have lost count now. I no longer get into the wrong train, I don’t have to consult the green arrow anymore to take the shuttle to Times Square, I’ve memorised everything. I belong to this city now. I have no fixed working hours, but I choose to return when offices close, to savour the sharpest taste that the city can offer. The peak commuting hour is past – I was in a paperback store in Greenwich Village (oh god, some of their bookshops turn you mad) – half of New York is done with dinner – but how crowded it still is, how crowded! Millions of people, different races and nationalities and colours, women, men, old people, boys. And among them, me. They are rushing like an army of ants; so am I. They don’t glance at one another, but I glance at them – grim, lined faces, expecting dinner back home, each with their secret anxieties, looking forward to meeting their wives or husbands – or sadness. All of them lonely, but I am immersed in an ocean of companionship. Today I took the wrong exit and surfaced on the opposite pavement, I was confused suddenly, for a moment I didn’t recognise my hotel. This is one of the contributions of the Subway – the same city, the same street corner, the same house and sky can appear in different forms, just like a lover dressed in clothes of a different colour or style. Ten days more, two hundred and forty hours. After that I will no longer climb up these stairs, look at the rectangle of the sky getting larger as I ascend, or be astonished at the sight of an even larger world beneath the sky. The same faces, but they have changed now, this summer evening has spread the light breeze everywhere, people are exchanging glances now, no one is lonely anymore. This evening crowd on Broadway will keep smiling and flowing, I won’t be there. I will have to leave her – but who is she? She is supposed to be there between quarter to eight and eight: hurry up. Let me call her and tell her not to be late. Here at this drugstore… no, the pastry shop is just a minute away; let’s go, run. I want a quick look at that girl, at the man too. Husband and wife? No, they’re too similar in appearance, must be brother and sister. Danes, both of them tall and slim, perfectly blonde. Indra and Indrani from the Rig Veda. Alas that they have to be shopkeepers despite such beauty, goddesses from heaven pressing buttons to add up prices. There are three customers ahead of me, I keep looking at the girl in rapt attention, why haven’t I asked her for a date all this time I have been here, when Dolly was working late at the office – but who knows, what if they are actually husband and wife, I can never tell from the ring, but then I could have found out easily enough by striking up a casual conversation. But I haven’t progressed beyond the smiles in their eyes, which they distribute to the entire world, I am leaving in ten days. I ask for a slice of fruit-cake from the showcase beneath the counter, so that she has to bend to get it out. (So slender, like a tender shoot; so flexible, like a strip of cane; my ivory girl, my willowy woman – whose poem is that?) She puts it in a box, I request her to wrap it in paper, so that I can watch her long, tapered fingers at play a while longer. I will have to carry this box now, although I never eat dessert, Dolly doesn’t care for it either. In the civilised world, why can’t one simply say, ‘I don’t want to buy anything, I’m only here to gaze at you for a bit, and for another glimpse of your blue eyes’? Near the door I remember – the phone call. ‘Bella isn’t asleep yet, I’ll leave as soon as Martha arrives.’ ‘When will Martha come?’ ‘It’s time – any moment now, there’s the doorbell, that must be her. See you soon then – in fifteen minutes.’
Ah – soon. In fifteen minutes. Run home. The owner of the laundry I use is standing at the door for a breath of fresh air, she munches on some sort of mouth-freshener all the time, her words are always fragrant. She smiles at me – should I stop for a bit? – no, two of the fifteen minutes must be over, there’s no time, just about ten minutes more. How wonderful this city is, how beautiful this evening, the first real day without a trace of winter, all the glass doors open, the entire world out on the streets, the florists on the pavements. How lovely these twelve – eleven-and-a-half – eleven – minutes of waiting are. I stand at my third floor window, looking out, one bus after another comes to a stop, she will get off one of them – the splitting image of her, with my favourite face, eyes, lips, and cheeks, ready for me. I still have a long ten days to go – unlimited time – a kingdom. I hope she won’t take a taxi, if she comes in a bus I will see her getting off, her rolling walk, in this sparkling light, I will see her look at my window across the road. Thumping, my heart thumping, I’m trembling with expectation, I’m not forty-two anymore, I’m eighteen. I’m travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, with Manju by my side. Some stroke of fortune has handed me the responsibility of escorting her back to her hostel. What joy, Manju needn’t be back before ten, it’s only eight-thirty now. I have instructed the coachman to take the road leading away from her hostel – towards Ramna – I’ve promised to pay him by the hour, so that he may drive slowly. A spring morning, a green Ramna, the golf course and the race course, the houses with sloping roofs concealed amidst their respective gardens, not a soul anywhere. Manju by my side, our shoulders touching, never before have we sat so close together. The carriage trundles along, laziness dripping from the sound of the hoof beats, the occasional rustle of leaves, a dreamy, intoxicating morning. Not too many words spoken, just looking into each other’s eyes occasionally; we’re alone, the veil of pointless conversation can be torn away; in my eyes she grows lovelier by the minute, my love has made her even more beautiful. Her smile spreads from her eyes to her lips, her lips part, a flash of teeth, tongue, I move away to observe how red I’ve made those lips of hers. My first time. My first kiss, that is. Manju is panting a little, suddenly it occurs to me that faces aren’t visible up close – which is better, kissing or looking? But it is Manju who leans towards me now, we grow bolder, suddenly I spot a boy of fourteen or so on the road, looking at us round-eyed, smiling. We have not even bothered to raise the shutters on the window, we’re innocent, we’re children, we’re heaven on earth. We’re children, both of us, I am seven at most, Tunti is probably not even five, I am visiting my mother’s family in Faridpur. All my games are with Tunti, I dress up dolls, dig holes in the ground to light a stove, pluck leaves and blades of grass to use as seasoning, I’m trying to be like Tunti, to love everything that she loves, for her sake I’m almost becoming a girl myself, all boys of my age seem to be apes when compared to Tunti. But in the evening my male personality asserts itself, I have taken the responsibility of coaching her, I teach her the alphabet, a lantern sits between us, two large shadows on the wall, instead of teaching her I watch the shadows, both small but one bigger than the other, but because the lantern is so close both are large, they shake their heads when we do, wave their hands, crook their fingers, I love watching them, curling up behind her I merge the shadows into one, I move about to make my shadow touch hers, I shake the lantern to create strange forms on the wall – Tunti laughs coquettishly, she is scared too. This was a mystery, shadows, a primordial evening romance which the easy availability of electricity has destroyed today. But there is no electricity at this Kohinoor Hotel of ours, there’s brilliant sunlight all day and at night the world disappears only we remain – Ila and I – in this tiny room on the second floor, the huge terrace just outside the door, and even larger sky above it, and before us – as big as the sky – huge, powerful, turbulent – waves, one after another, the storm rages all night, but all day long it’s just blue, white, frothy, green, violet – the sea. The whole sky is in this room, the horizon is in this room, and the voice, the passion, the breath of the sea – all ours, all for us. Ila’s in Puri for the first time, she is afraid of the roar of the waves at night, we spend most of the night awake. I still cannot get used to the idea that Ila is mine now, my wife, every time I feel I am doing something wrong, doing what I should not, and that’s why the thrill is unending. Is this real? Are Ila and I really alone in our second-floor room, cloistered in the heart of the night with the sea stretching before us and the star-studded sky over our heads? Which is real? These days, these nights, this upheaval of the waves, this stirring of the blood – or marriage, domesticity, the poky little flat in Bhawanipur, the suffocating smoke from burning coal every evening? We’re on the Chowringhee tram, on our way to New Market, I am sitting next to Ila on a seat reserved for ladies, but several nurses in white uniform get on at Elgin Road, I move to the long bench near the door. A young Anglo-Indian woman enters at the next stop and sits down next to me at once, a priest takes the seat on her other side, a thin, tired clerk somehow makes space for himself on the few remaining inches. Four people on a seat meant for three, the priest is quite plump, it’s a tight squeeze, I cannot avoid contact with the Anglo-Indian woman’s body even if I try, fidgeting makes the contact even more palpable. But her face shows no sign of discomfort, her face hasn’t contracted in annoyance, her eyes are quite cheerful, as though she has avoided contact with the priest and is leaning against me, she might even respond without reservation if I say something. Pleasure spreads over my body – the fading winter sunshine on my back, and this other warmth – I am feeling guilty because Ila is on the same tram (even if she has her back to me), and because of the guilt, the sensation is even stronger, as though I am on a swing in a garden, moving very slowly (actually the sideways swaying of the tram), my eyes are closing, I can get a whiff of flowers in the air (actually the lotion in the woman’s hair, the powder on her face, the perfume on the handkerchief tucked into her breast) – ten minutes pass this way – no, maybe five, three hundred seconds, an eternity, with my body I sense a young woman, a young soul, a stranger’s life – warm, soft, new, undiscovered. She gets off at the same stop as we do, I have to suppress all other desires because Ila is with me (could I not have found out her address at least?), in fact I don’t even try to look at her on the road – I do not realise when the mistress of touch is lost in the crowd on Chowringhee forever, gifting me only a flower that lived for five minutes. Everyone is lost this way, no one can be held back, the person you’re spending your life with, the person you refer to as your husband or wife, that person has long been lost too. All of us are changing every moment, we do not know one another. A smashing party, liquor is flowing in this city under prohibition, the low hum of the Arabian Sea is drowned in laughter and conversation, film stars are circulating like Ferris Wheels – millionaires, diplomats, and so on. I am drinking lemonade, I don’t want to lose my composure, I’ve got my eye on the fair-skinned French countess, her velvet dress clinging to her curves, it looks very simple but every weave holds an artist’s talent, skill, taste – at least, let’s assume that’s the case – I must find out whether it’s a Dior. As soon I arrived I got a couple of minutes with this Indophile writer, I asked her without a moment’s hesitation whether she was fond of Baudelaire; in response, she smiled with her eyes and murmured the first stanza of the wonderful poem whose title is Invitation au Voyage. The French words fell from her lips like droplets of honey on my ears, I found a new beauty in the creases at the corner of her eyes signalling her age. But I had to move away soon afterwards because of the swelling crowd, and now I cannot approach the siren any more, I cannot even see the slender figure in black velvet continuously, like a jewel in a box, like a sword in a scabbard – how downy black the velvet is, like a poem by Baudelaire, black, a glow bursting out of it. I’m standing in a corner like a fool, guzzling lemonade – how about a Cinzano instead – no, best to avoid these shallow Romantics, Classic scotch is best. No, not alcohol, I need food, I’m ravenous after the exertion of seeing the Vatican, I’ve just returned to my hotel, it’s three in the afternoon. The dining room is shut, I’m at the snack-bar in the basement. There’s are no thronging crowd now, I’m the only customer, besides a broad-shouldered young German drinking beer on the long bench. I raise my eyes as I eat; a girl is standing on the pavement outside, as still as a picture. I am in the dimly lit basement, the girl’s one floor above me on the pavement, it’s summer outside, I get a clear view through the clean glass window – she’s exactly like a heroine taking up position on stage. She’s dressed in a thin, white, low-necked dress, I am thinking Boticelli, but suddenly the lady of spring appears to wave, she seems to be signalling with her hand – then, bending, almost flattening her nose against the window, she sends an unmistakable message – come. To whom? Must be the German, but his back is still turned as before, and from his position he cannot see her anyway. Me? Impossible. I concentrate on my omelette again, but… isn’t it silly to brusquely reject someone who’s submitting willingly? Isn’t it cowardice? Isn’t it discourteous to life itself? Let me at least find out what this is all about. But when I raise my eyes – she’s gone. I abandon my food to go outside – not there. Where has she gone? Black magic? I keep thinking of her all afternoon, and at night when the fashionable crowd on Via Veneto is swelling, I’m wandering around the cafes, scanning the faces – but will I even be able to recognise her now? Did I really see her, or did I only create an object of desire from my suddenly arousal? Maybe she was only an ordinary streetwalker (just like my companion of five minutes on the tram to Chowringhee) – she had thought that a foreigner would be easy prey – and for her I had wasted the entire afternoon and evening – and that too, not in any old city but in Rome, where, this very morning, just a few hours ago, I had seen the Sistine Chapel and the opulence of the Vatican for the first time in my life. Was it for the thin white dress, the curve of the neckline, the cleavage which rose and fell with her breath, the cheap array of beauty being peddled that I had forgotten the Eternal City and the immortal Michelangelo these past few hours? Here they are, arranged on the shelf, the books I bought recently; Thomas Mann’s novel, Rilke’s poetry, a wonderful new translation of Sophocles – and I am restless because Dolly isn’t here yet, my days are flying by either in Dolly’s company, or waiting for her; the hours that I could have used to re-read Philoctetes, to listen to the angels beating their wings, to watch the goddess ascend from the fires of hell to Faust, have been filled to the brim by Dolly Gordon, who does not understand poetry, who likes going to the Metropolitan Museum only for the pleasure of having lunch by the fountain in its garden, whose lack of time (or lack of interest) prevented me from going to Mozart’s Don Juan, making me give up the tickets even after getting them. How cruel this thing is – which people call love. How agonising – this waiting. Half an hour has passed, my eyes are smarting form staring at the clock, ten times I have walked up to the telephone and ten times I have returned without using it. Why should I worry? She’s the one who should inform me if she’s going to be late: it’s her responsibility, her duty. I’m hungry now, lunch was a long time ago, a hamburger (I don’t enjoy eating good food alone) – she isn’t even bothered that I’m starving because of her. Why don’t I go out – let Dolly go back, let her be punished, let her realise that she’s no empress, and that I’m no slave either. Dolly does these things wilfully, she hooks me to a barbed wire and enjoys the outcome, savouring her own power. And now there are only ten days to go. Does she really love me? Or, having submitted, does she find herself trapped, is my golden bird now fluttering her wings in a cage? And yet, when I was stuck in Hotel Mascot, unable to go out because I had a cold, it was winter, this same person had brought me food every day – lobster, ham, chicken, apples, Rhine wine, soft and warm rolls she had baked herself – one day the lift was out of order, she had walked all the way up to the ninth floor, carrying the basket of food, a handkerchief tied around her head, a limpid glow in her Hispanic eyes, snow on her overcoat, panting because of the cold and the effort of climbing nine floors, her lips slightly parted, offering me the gift of her vigour and her joy, the giver of life, the giver of sustenance. I was gazing at her spellbound – Dolly, Dora, Dolores, my Dhaleshwari, my dahlia – how could Jim Gordon have left her. Love: must it be only momentary, then? Desire, the blooming of desire – is that all there is to love, does the other side of the vibrant picture reveal itself as soon as the desire is satiated? Ah – if only it had been the French countess instead of Dolly, whose address I hadn’t sought, whose very name I had forgotten, yet with whom there could have been a mingling of minds, the kind of love on which the body does not obstinately intrude every now and then. With her help I too might have discovered the key to Racine, the fire beneath the ice, the lightning hidden under the lid of the couplet; I would have got to the heart of the secret magic that made every cultured Frenchman and woman besotted with Racine, while foreigners could not reach him at all. What a triumph it would have been in my life, like conquering a new kingdom. But the time comes when we no longer want conquests, nor happiness – we just want peace. And this peace can only come from… the body. Books make you think too much, books are bad. The body offers no argument, the body is good. Even a beautiful woman sitting in front of me gives me peace, like a pink haze stealing over me surreptitiously, I have to make no effort. And that is why I want Dolly Gordon. Just look at the time – a quarter to nine, the streetlamps have been lit – what is she doing? Fleur de Lis will close in another fifteen minutes – the small French Restaurant on 87th Street, never crowded, they serve wonderful oysters and a cold and sweet sauterne – all day long I’ve been looking forward to dining there with Dolly. Why isn’t she here? Is it even possible that her daughter has not gone to sleep yet, or that the babysitter hasn’t arrived? Or… has there been an accident? Did a drunk run his Chevrolet over her? Did the cable of the lift snap suddenly? I seem to see Dolly at the hospital, covered by a sheet – she is no longer beautiful, she is not a woman anymore, she has become a pulpy lump of flesh and blood. No, this anxiety is unbearable, swallowing my pride I pick up the phone: busy. Two minutes later, the moment I hear her voice, I am furious, my jealousy rears its head, unformed accusations and suspicions. ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry, please forgive me – Martha only just got here, and Bella simply wouldn’t go to sleep.’ ‘But you said the doorbell rang.’ ‘That was the janitor, he was here to fix the kitchen sink.’ ‘Right. But then why was your phone busy a few minutes ago?’ ‘It wasn’t me – Martha was calling her boyfriend.’ ‘Didn’t you say Martha only just got here?’ ‘Oh, only just in the sense of a few minutes ago. The moment she came in the phone rang.’ ‘Why was she so late?’ ‘She had gone to the hospital to see her grandmom.’ ‘Is her grandmom dying?’ The response was brief laughter. ‘Wait at the corner for me, I’m coming over in a taxi, ok?’
I have been listening to Dolly a little suspiciously all this while – the janitor, Martha’s boyfriend, the grandmom, it all sounds plausible, but who knows whether the truth is something else, I have no way of finding out anything beyond what she chooses to tell me, how much of her days and nights, of her entire past, of her life, do I know about anyway? I am smarting at the casual air with which she spoke to me on the phone, as though these things aren’t particularly important for her, she will be happy if she can visit me, but not unhappy if she can’t; for some reason, she is oblivious about how wrong it is of her to be so late, uncaring about how much it pains me. But my state of mind was transformed the moment the last word fell off the black instrument bearing our words back and forth. ‘Wait at the corner, I’m coming over at once…’ These words gave life to a different Dolly in my mind – Dolly – Dolores – Dhaleshwari – honey-tongued, clear-eyed, a heart of pure compassion. We have entered a restaurant – fortunately it’s still open – high ceilings, a stone building from the eighteenth century, a strapping tall half-asleep young man is our waiter. It’s almost closing time, but he isn’t hurrying us, his big body is lumbering about lethargically, the corners of his eyes are red, his face is creased, grave. He holds a desultory conversation with us (assuming that Dolly and I are married), perhaps to shake off his sleep, or because there are no other customers. He speaks English haltingly, he comes from Buenos Aires – the loveliest city in the world, according to him – I sigh because I am unlikely to see this city ever in my life, but Dolly begins to talk to him enthusiastically in Spanish. Our broccoli and brain-cutlet are laid out before us, the man stands with his back against the wall, Dolly’s gaze keep drifting towards him; ‘He’s handsome, isn’t he? His face is very interesting, isn’t it…’ ‘Looks like an alcoholic, doesn’t he?’ Dolly keeps whispering comments like these in my ears, squeezing my hand at times, as though to reassure me of her devotion, and I am wondering where my gut-wrenching craving has gone, which made every nerve in my body tingle while I was standing at the corner of Broadway and 110th. And when her taxi did in fact stop – it really was Dolly, after this long wait it really was her lovely, fragrant body – how did my joy from that moment vanish so quickly? Is this why Jim Gordon had left her, then? Is it then possible only to love the one who is not near, or who has not submitted? Is love nothing but the phantom of our desire then? Is it better to remain at a distance than to get close? We want to love, our special instants are born of that wanting, they provide only a single glimpse before they vanish into the darkness, into the caverns of time, into the recesses of our dreams – and still new dreams don’t cease. Dreams from memories, memories from dreams – unending. Take that waitress in Vienna, ripe of body, red of cheeks, whom I cannot help stealing covert glances at while dining with a professor of Indian studies. This place is known as a ‘Greek Inn’, centuries old, ivy creeping up its ancient stone walls, uneven rows of caves and grottos inside, some a couple of steps down, others a few steps up, dim lights in brackets hewn into the walls – half-dark, unpolished oak tables without table linen, but with an announcement in four languages printed in large letters, reading which thrills me. ‘Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe and Heine used to frequent this inn; many of their compositions were planned here.’ I cannot quite fathom what the professor is saying about Geetagovindam, my curiosity about this inn is growing uncontrollably. How old is it? Seven hundred years? Six hundred and fifty? What was it before it became an inn? Was it a monastery for medieval monks? Or a chieftain’s fort? What led to its conversion into an inn? Is there a memorial to Goethe or Beethoven here? The professor does not know for sure, he had heard about this place once, he does not remember now – he has been immersed in studying Sanskrit for the past twenty-five years, he has not had the time to devote himself to anything else. ‘Can’t we ask the waitress?’ The professor asks her a series of questions, explaining the answers to me in English, it turns out she is not very well-informed either, but that does not matter much to me – I get a chance to gaze a little longer at this plump, round, rosy-cheeked beauty with heavy breasts, a figure straight out of Rubens, as though a mythical heroine has descended to earth to pour wine into my glass, as though this extraordinary grotto is the location of my tryst with her – but the moment I leave this place I will never see her again, she will sink into a grey and hazy early morning dream – like the two Negro nurses at my hospital in Cincinnati. They turn frantic as soon as they see me, I don’t know why, one of them smoothening the pillow, the other straightening my sheet (although everything is just fine); saying ‘lie down, lie down, the doctor will be here any minute…’ they practically shove me into my bed (without offering any explanation of why I have to lie down because the doctor was coming); they bend over my face from either side, two pairs of silky impenetrable black eyes pierce me; one of them says, ‘My name’s Jenny, hers is Fanny, call us if you need anything, call us by our names, whenever you like, we’re here all night tonight – ok? That’s a nice boy.’ I turn red, I try to tell them I’m neither a ‘boy’ nor ‘nice’, I am forty-two, I am a formidable literary critic in my country, there’s not a writer who does not fear my jabs – but before I can open my mouth, Jenny (or Fanny) asks, ‘Don’t you have a girlfriend?’ and bends so far over me that her breasts spill out before my eyes – the colour of clouds, tranquil, like grapefruit, I have to lower my eyes, the doctor enters that instant and my dark-skinned does disperse, startled. Knuckles rap my back and chest, everything is alright, but this ward won’t be convenient for me, apparently – I cannot make out why not, but in ten minutes I am transferred into a room that I have all to myself, it’s far more comfortable but there’s no Jenny, no Fanny, I did not even get the chance to bid them goodbye, they vanished after leaving a single black scratch on the sky of my multicoloured imagination. The snow-covered world stretches before my eyes, but in my heart black glows brighter, tender deep black eyes, and unruly waves of curly black hair. Was it not a fresh beauty that had flashed before my eyes for just a few moments? I don’t think they were really promiscuous – Jenny and Fanny – perhaps they pitied me because I’m a foreigner, maybe their ability to love is unfulfilled, perhaps they are looking for ways to dispel their loneliness, no matter how briefly. But why am I even thinking of other things when the real life Dolly is here with me, the long day is ending at last, I’ll be here for nine days more, the night is deep, Dolly’s eyes are shining like stars in the darkness – let us assume nothing else exists in this whole wide world, only the two of us for each other, I am falling asleep, my head on her breast. Ah, this peace, which nothing can match, for which I can forget Michelangelo, Thomas Mann, ambition, effort, responsibilities, the fear of death – everything. Like another round of sleep within the sleep, like certainty that one can sink into – for a few days, a few hours, a few moments. I am falling asleep with my head on Dolly’s breast, I am waking up, or am I dreaming? What are those ants doing there? They’re dragging a dead dragonfly – from my shelf to their hole in the window-sill, their home – a lavish feast. Such power, such momentum, and such speed. The dragonfly’s wings seem to be beating faintly now and then – has it died, or have they clamped their sticky legs on its dying – but not yet dead – body, should I release the dragonfly from its agony? I press down on it with a book, the dragonfly is flattened, but none of the ants dies, their legs are clamped to it as before. One, two, four, twelve… exactly fourteen, too small for the naked eye (I had to count thrice), the dragonfly is as big in comparison to them as the elephant is in comparison to us. Papers and books are piled high on my shelf, the window-sill is low, they will have to climb down one wall and up another – how effortlessly they are traversing the danger-strewn route uphill and downhill, scaling the peak of the Kanchenjunga before climbing down to the valley – crossing or skirting every obstacle, like a tank on the battlefield, at a hundred miles an hour by our standards – these amazing atom-sized creatures. I try to stop them with a postcard, but it is like trying to stem a flood with a fence – they swarm over it, cross it – they are unstoppable, indomitable. I even kill one or two of them between my fingertips, others take their place immediately, the troops do not scatter. I gaze at this victorious march – spellbound, a little fearful, as though I am exhausted just by the sight of this incredible endeavour, then I become aware of the sound of trams outside, Calcutta’s May heat is palpable even at this early hour of the morning – a long, sweltering day stretches before me, I have to get out of bed soon, I have to shave, I have to bathe, I have to wonder how to fill this day, so many hours, till I fall asleep again. I am not as strong as the ants, where can I take shelter?